Thursday, November 28, 2013

When salt saved art

I've expressed before my enjoyment of a good art history (fact or fiction) story. I can't remember where I first heard about the upcoming George Clooney movie, but it intrigued me enough to seek it out in book form first. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History tells part of the story of the work of the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of the Allied armies in Europe during World War II. Author Robert M. Edsel became interested in the work of the MFAA while working in Florence, but his research soon turned from an avocation to a profession. He discovered so much about the mostly unknown work of these men and women that he eventually had to break it up into two books. The Monuments Men (written with Bret Witter) is the first one, covering Northern Europe, while the second -- published just this year -- covers MFAA activities and adventures in Italy.

The work of the MFAA started in the United States when a bunch of art historians and museum directors got together to plan what to do with their treasures in the event of an attack by Germany on the Eastern Seaboard. One of the participants -- a lowly preservationist from Iowa amongst all those East Coast intellectuals -- George Stout, managed to get himself assigned to the MFAA once he arrived in Europe and began the laborious process of setting up teams who would travel alongside each part of the vast Allied armies as they made their way from the beaches of Normandy to Berlin. These "monuments men" would protect the ancient cathedrals and castles in the liberated towns and cities, taking the first steps to restoring them to their pre-war glory.

Once they arrived in France, though, Stout and the MFAA discovered that they had a bigger task -- locating the various stashes of looted artwork that the Nazis had picked up from museums, churches and private (mostly Jewish) citizens as they marched West. Five years later, as the Germans retreated ahead of the Allies, these works went with them and were then "secured" in caves, salt mines and even the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle.

Among the priceless works: Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, Vermeer's The Astronomer, and van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. The looting was vast (Track 5 of Disc 11 provides the astonishing numbers), and this itemizing doesn't even count the number of "degenerate" artworks that are lost forever, destroyed by the Nazis. Adolph Hitler was an art lover (he also considered himself an artist) and he intended to build a vast museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria that would hold all these European treasures. But once he realized that the Third Reich was doomed, he instituted -- over the objections of his architect, Albert Speer -- the "Nero" decree: Destroy everything that the Allies might use (or want) as they made their way into Germany.  The Monuments Men were running out of time.

I found this story fascinating -- like the novels I listened to earlier this year that described the amazing feats of courage of the women of the British SOE -- the matter-of-fact, let's-just-get-the-job-done attitude under terrifying conditions of these men (and a few women) is awe-inspiring and just makes for a great story. I'm not sure that audio is the best way for this, though. Edsel features just a few of the monuments men in action and I'm afraid -- even though he very carefully introduced them at the beginning -- that they began to blend together. I could have used a map, too, as I have only the vaguest idea of German geography (once they crossed the Rhine, I got lost). I got my Nazis mixed up as well (Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann). I'd like to get my hands on a copy of the book, but there are a lot of holds.

Part of my problem, I fear, was the narrator, Jeremy Davidson. I didn't think he was very good, but I'll try not to pile on here. Sloppy pronunciation ("unexpectantly" "ah-mmediately"), inconsistent French, German and British accents, a pretty unvarying reading pace. Some odd narrative choices: Why was a conversation between Hitler and Goebbels (?) not read with German-accented English, but other dialogue among Germans was? Letters from some of the monuments men were read by a different narrator (I think it was an uncredited William Dufris), but not all the letters from the text were (I'm going to guess that the Dufris readings were pulled out from the text [boxed], while the letters read by Davidson were not.) In one case, each narrator pronounced the name of a monuments man's wife differently. The Author's Note was delivered by another uncredited reader ... perhaps the author?

On the plus side, the opening and closing music was appropriately military-ish (in a good way).

Edsel's subsequent book: Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis has a different narrator, one I've been hoping to listen to for a while, Edoardo Ballerini. I'll probably give this a listen as well.

Now for the movie. As I was listening, I was trying to figure out what would be the movie, exactly. I mean, the race against the Nero decree was slightly tense, but didn't seem to me all that nerve-wracking; but then I saw that Clooney cast the lovely Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, a dumpy middle-aged Frenchwoman who -- as a curator at the Jeu de Paume -- saved a massive number of artworks.  Ah. Movies from books. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I'm looking forward to it.

[In the photograph, retrieved from the New York Times and credited to American Jewish Historical Society, the soldier on the right is Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger and he is looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait looted from his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany. Ironically, Ettlinger was never able to view the Rembrandt when he was a boy, as a Jew he was barred from the museum housing it.

[The photograph of the Bruges Madonna was taken by George Washingtong, that of The Astronomer is from the Web Gallery of Art. Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Narrated by Jeremy Davidson
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO); credited to Macmillan Audio, 2009.  14:19

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